US envoy insists Syria pullout doesn't affect Iran strategy

US envoy insists Syria pullout doesn't affect Iran strategy
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The Trump administration’s special envoy for Iran insisted to incredulous lawmakers on Wednesday that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria would not embolden Tehran.

When pressed repeatedly by senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, special envoy Brian Hook said Trump’s retreat from Syria would not affect the administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

“We are very comfortable with our Iran strategy in Syria,” Hook told the committee.

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Trump’s decision “does not hurt our Iran strategy,” he added.

Pressed again later in the hearing, Hook said “we do not believe that it changes the dynamic with Iran.”

“The president’s decision with respect to Syria is not going to change our Iran strategy or the efficacy of it,” he said.

Trump has ordered all U.S. troops in northern Syria to withdraw, paving the way for Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces that were instrumental in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS.

In the wake of that decision, the Kurds have made a deal with Syrian government and Russian forces to move into the area to protect them from Turkey.

U.S. officials have long said one of the goals of the U.S. presence in Syria was to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Tehran has troops in Syria supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s 8-year civil war.

But on Wednesday, Hook claimed that “our forces in northeast Syria have never had an Iran mission set.”

Despite Hook’s insistences, senators in both parties were unconvinced.

“I presume Iran was smiling from ear to ear as Turkey rushed into Syria,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump FDA pick dodges questions on Trump's flavored vape ban Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping Progressive Democrats ramp up attacks on private equity MORE (R-Utah) said.

“Things are not better for Iran in the Middle East as we have gone, as Turkey has hit the Kurds and the Kurds have now allied with Assad?” a disbelieving Romney pressed Hook. “Surely Assad is stronger. And this isn’t good for Iran?”

Hook responded, saying: “Our military is in Syria for ISIS. Our diplomacy is focused on Iran.”

“I hear you, but diplomacy has impact if there’s a military that’s strong and in the region,” Romney replied. “That’s a dramatic perspective on your part, that Iran is not celebrating what’s happening in Syria.”

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenProgressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters On The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows MORE (D-N.H.) told Hook it was hard for her to understand "that you appear to think there’s no connection between what’s going to happen in Syria and our efforts to address what’s happening in Iran.”

“The shift by Kurdish forces who were our partners in the fight against ISIL away from the United States and into alignment with Iran and Russia I believe is going to have serious implications for Syria and for the region,” she said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. 

“We had a very small amount of troops partnering with Kurdish [forces] to maintain a significant area in northeast Syria that was stable where the United States had influence, where we were wanted,” she added. “And what you’re telling me now is that we have pulled out those troops and we have greater leverage than we had before?”